When I was a first-year teacher, my mentor teacher observed me teaching a lesson. Afterward, we met up during my prep period and she said, “John, your lesson was outstanding but I want to talk to you about how you’re treating someone in your class.”
My stomach sank.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve noticed that you are really good at showing students grace when they mess up. You encourage them to take creative risks. You remind them that learning is a process and mistakes are allowed. But then you turn around and demand perfection from someone else. You’re really hard on him every time he makes a mistake. You’re impatient with him and I can see that he’s pulling back and isn’t taking any risks. He’s afraid.”
“I haven’t noticed. I mean, it’s not on purpose.”
“I know it’s not intentional but it is damaging,” she said.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“You,” she answered.
I let a sigh and cracked a smile.
“You seem relieved.”
“I am,” I answered. “I thought it was one of my students you were talking about.”
“How is this any better?” she asked.
“I just . . .”
“You have to show yourself the same amount of grace that you show your students. You expect them to make mistakes but you get mad at yourself when you make mistakes. You’re patient with them but you have no patience for your own learning curve. Take some bold risks. Fail hard and get back up and try again. It’s the only way you’re going to make it as a teacher,” she said.
She was right.
It was a long, slow journey of showing myself grace. It wasn’t until the end of the year that I conquered some of my fears and actually piloted project-based learning. My journey toward empowering students often involved tackling the fear of imperfection and reminding myself that mistakes are a part of the process. At one point, it involved breaking up with busy and saying no to certain opportunities. But most of all, it has been an ongoing journey of tackling my fears.
Listen to the Podcast
If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users).
The Fear is Real
Over the last few years, I’ve worked with teachers around the world who are taking steps toward empowering students. Whether it has been a workshop, ongoing coaching, self-paced courses, I’ve asked teachers to share some of their fears that they have experienced. Similarly, as a cohort leader and a professor, I ask my teacher candidates to share some of the fears they have as they think about student-centered learning.
One of the things that amazes me is just how common these fears tend to be. Whether it’s a Calculus teacher in Australia or a first grade teacher in Hong Kong, we all have a certain level of fear of letting go of control. I’ve written before about the fears I had in empowering students with voice and choice and I thought I would share these fears here again. What about the noise level? What about classroom management? What will the principal think? Will we actually cover all the standards? How will I assess the learning?
But, honestly, each of these fears was a subset of a larger question. What if it fails?
As a new teacher, I was so consumed by the question, “What if it fails?” that I never even asked, “What if it works?” I was afraid to take my mentor teacher’s advice and fail hard.
Teaching is often a mix of best practices and next practices. We know ahead of time that certain strategies are likely to work. But we also know that change occurs when we innovate and iterate and experiment. There’s no guarantee that these new strategies will work. I can point to the research on PBL and how it leads to moderate increases in student achievement and significant increases in long-term retention of knowledge. But none of that alleviates the fear I felt when students took a district-mandated high-stakes test after a PBL unit. I know that project-based learning can improve student achievement. I know the benefits of PBL.
Here’s the hard truth. Sometimes it won’t work. Sometimes you take a risk and it fails. You start a project only to abandon the idea two days later after you realize it’s actually not that authentic. You plan a project and realize that your students actually don’t have the prerequisite skills to tackle it.
This Could Fail
Creative work is easy when it’s simply an idea. You can plan it out and put it away. Meanwhile, it remains a perfect ideal, sitting on the shelf of your mind. But take it down and transform the idea into an actual product and suddenly it feels complex and confusing and even fragile (even if it’s not).
But what I’ve found is that the pit-in-the-stomach fear is nearly always a sign that you are on the right track. I remember telling A.J. Juliani that I wanted to do this highly visual approach for Empower and the whole time I wondered if people would mock the visual aesthetic for being too messy or bold or sketched-out. I felt the same way when I first decided to create sketch videos and when I decided to do color sketches instead of photographs when I did keynotes.
In these moments, there’s a sense that what you’re creating might not work. It’s why I keep a sticky note with the words “this could fail.”
It’s easy to do creative work when you know ahead of time that it will succeed. But the best creative work you do is the kind that will leave you feeling uncertain and scared. And when you choose to embrace that take creative risks, it has a profound effect on how you teach.
Five Reasons Why Teachers Should Take Creative Risks
When I observe classrooms where students are becoming problem-solvers and creative thinkers, there is always a common element with the teachers. They take risks. They experiment. They know that creative risk-taking is exactly that: a risk. It might work. It might fail. But they also know that the greatest risk occurs when they teach out of fear and fail to innovate in their own practice. So, with that in mind, I’d like to explore reasons you should take creative risks, both in your teaching and in your life — and why you should share your risk-taking with your students.
Before we go there, though, I want to add some nuance. Sometimes teachers don’t have the permission to take creative risks. There are some toxic cultures out there with administrators who obsess over student test scores and who shame teachers publicly. These actions make it hard to feel the permission to make mistakes and fail forward. By contrast, other administrators invite innovation. They encourage teachers to step outside of their comfort zones and experiment with new strategies. The extent to which you take creative risks will vary significantly on your school culture.
#1: You build empathy with students.
I remember a moment when a group of students burst into tears because they couldn’t get their solar oven to work. They had each researched possible concepts and tried out various approaches as a group after school. The next morning, they met up to talk about their design. And yet, when they finally attempted it, the project simply didn’t work. It’s easy to say, “it’s just some cardboard and aluminum foil,” but I instantly recognized how they felt. It was the same frustration I had felt when writing a book that wasn’t working or trying to string together a line of code that didn’t work.
I also understand when a student has a hard time getting started on a creative task. I’ve felt the fear before. I’ve experienced the lack of clarity. The more I take creative risks, the better I am at anticipating the emotions my students will experience and I’m also able to walk them through it, because I have walked through that process myself. It’s easy to make a snap judgment about why a student is failing to get started. You might view it as laziness or a lack of interest or even a poorly constructed unit plan. But when you start from a place of empathy, you are more patient with students who are on that journey.
#2: You demonstrate that failure is a part of the process.
When A.J. Juliani and I created the LAUNCH Cycle, we included a phase called “Highlight What’s Working and Fix What’s Failing.” We chose to use the word “failing” for a reason. Although we could have used “needs improvement” or even “revise,” we chose the word “failing” because we wanted all students to see that every prototype will have areas where it is failing. No project is perfect in its first iteration.
But we also wanted students to see that fail-ure was permanent while fail-ing was part of the process. Here, students can embrace a mindset that mistakes are a part of the learning process.
Don’t get me wrong. Failing isn’t fun. Mistakes suck. It’s hard to work on something that simply isn’t working in the moment. However, when students expect mistakes and view it as part of the learning process, they are more likely to embrace a growth mindset:
#3: You create a culture of creative risk-taking.
You are the leader of your classroom. So, when you take creative risks with your students, you are saying to your students, “This is what we do. We take creative risks.” But you’re not simply telling them to take creative risks. You are leading the way by taking risks yourself. We tend to think that teachers need to look self-assured and confident. However, we can also say things like, “I’m experimenting with this project” or “I’m trying something out and I’m afraid it’s not going to work.” In these moments, we are not only modeling creative risk-taking; we are modeling vulnerability and trust, which, in turn, transform the classroom culture.
This is also why it helps to learn something you know nothing about (like playing an instrument or learning to code or writing a novel) and sharing your journey with your students. This normalizes creative risk-taking for the entire classroom community. One of the hardest parts of creative risk-taking is the uncertainty and loneliness of it. But when you share your journey, you are giving them a blueprint for how to handle failure while also helping them see that they are not alone in the process.
#4: You redefine the idea of inspiration.
I have a flow chart up on a whiteboard in my closet. It’s the first thing I see in the morning before I head out to write. The idea is simple. Just write. The draft might be awful. The words might be clunky. But that’s okay. Just write. I might feel tired or anxious or scared or bored. But the good news about writing is that it’s not dependent on how I feel. It’s dependent on whether or not I can string together sentences.
The same is true in the classroom. When you take creative risks, you send the message that inspiration is about motivation and drive rather than momentary feelings. The passion comes from purpose not from the novelty of an idea or the assurance of success.
The typical symbol for an idea is a lightbulb (which began with Felix the Cat). But what if it’s less like a light bulb that turns on instantaneously and more like a seed that grows slowly? What if great ideas don’t come to life until you plant them and water them and nurture them? And what if the process gets boring and messy and there are moments you can’t see anything and even the seed itself seems to be buried so deep that you begin to doubt it? I don’t mean this to be negative. I’m passionate about creative work but at the end of the day, it is still work, complete with boredom, chaos, doubt, and, yes, even a little faith. And the whole time you wonder, “Is this even worth it? Will this be any good?”
When you are willing to plant seeds and trust the uncertainty, your students experience the hard, gritty, exciting, fun rollercoaster that is creative work.
#5: It’s the starting place for innovation.
Think of the biggest innovation you’ve made in your teaching practice. Chances are, it started with a creative risk. When you choose to take creative risks with your students, you are beginning the process of transforming education. Maybe you want to start a service learning program but you don’t have the resources or funding. Perhaps you want to start a makerspace but you feel like you don’t have enough experience with things like circuitry or Arduino or programming. Maybe you want to have your students film documentaries, record podcasts, or write blog posts.
These creative risks often lead to tiny innovations which move into larger innovations. One documentary leads to a whole multimedia movement and suddenly you’re telling stories in powerful ways. Student blogging leads to kids falling in love with writing and suddenly students are creating their own books and magazines and you have a whole digital journalism department. A simple service project turns into something that changes the world.
It doesn’t always turn huge. And that’s okay, too. Because, even if it’s not a big deal to you, it’s a huge deal to your students. When you take those creative risks, you become the teacher they never forget.
Treat Your Work Like an Experiment.
One of the ideas I love in the start-up world is the concept of pivoting. It’s the idea that you have something that remains steady (your goals, your vision, your core product) but that you pivot around that in order to figure out what works. Everything is an experiment. It’s the notion of teaching in perpetual beta.
So, instead of being mired in self-doubt, you get to treat your work as an experiment. If it didn’t work, it’s not a failure. It’s a chance to figure out what doesn’t work. In this view, the biggest risk isn’t failing. The biggest risk is doing nothing. This is admittedly difficult in the high-stakes environment of standardized testing. You are often placed in a situation where mistakes are not okay and where experimentation is frowned upon. I don’t have an easy answer. However, I think this is where courage plays a role in creativity and innovation. Being different is risky. Experimenting can be humbling when your school culture doesn’t embrace it.
Mistakes aren’t fun but they are what make growth possible. The following continuum explores what students can do when they have projects that fail.
This process builds on student autonomy and agency and sends the message that mistakes are okay. We don’t want students to embrace failure so much as failing. Fail-ure is permanent but fail-ing is a temporary part of the learning process.
Get this free Empower blueprint and toolkit along with members-only access to my latest blog posts and resource
I totally identify with the ideas of empowering students but have struggled mightily with having students be okay with failure. That part of the process is what really needs to be worked upon with and built upon over time – as students still feel that they are to either be right or wrong and then just move on to the next thing. Much of that is ingrained and needs to be retaught and rethought as we move into helping students to navigate the real world.